There’s a weird derision about documentaries about movies from certain elements of the film world, and I can never truly understand why that is. Many docs are slammed for their lack of rigor and thoroughness, and others are seized upon as “intro to film school” bullshit that just states the obvious over and over again. It’s an unfair dilemma, though it’s true that you can’t please everybody, but Alexandre O. Philippe (The People v. George Lucas, Doc of the Dead) comes perhaps as close as anyone will ever these days.
His new documentary, 78/52, named so for the number of shot setups and cuts that comprise the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, is a remarkable little documentary that’s full of fun talking heads (Elijah Wood, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, and many more) and a great deal of interesting criticism. It’s a fantastic introduction to certain elements of cinematic analysis that stops just shy of going into the realm of semiotics. It’s a feature-length examination of a single scene that really takes its time and doesn’t leave the audience behind, but contains enough new and interesting info that it’s really worthwhile to watch even if you’re the kind of lame-ass killjoy know-it-all who’d rag on this.
Philippe puts a lot of effort in grounding the audience in the context of the era of Psycho’s origins without diverting into the more rote and overall criticism of the film — it really focuses on the specific taboos of the cultural moment that the scene shatters, and its specific influences (Clouzot’s Diaboliques et al), as well as its effects on the whole of cinema — and it never lapses into lengthy discussions of Robert Bloch and Ed Gein and all of the names that you’re expected to cover when talking about this film. That context extends to Hitchcock’s own career from the silent era through his later work in films like Frenzy (perhaps the funniest observation in the entire film is that the director’s previous film, the spy caper North by Northwest, ended with Cary Grant taking Eva Marie Saint to bed and a sight-gag about fucking, and Psycho begins with Leigh lying in bed, post-coitus). There’s talk of the film as harbinger, as a sign of the evolution of the 1950s “family values” and all that defined into the era of violence and political awakening that would shape the decade to come, but that’s passed on in favor of honest analysis of the text itself and its construction. As it should be, I guess.
Handling the discussion of the scene’s filming is Marli Renfro, a stripper and pin-up model who was cast as Janet Leigh’s stunt double during the scene. She handly points out when it was her on screen, going so far to tell us about a time she nearly lost a finger as a child when elaborating about why it’s her hand on screen at one point in the film, and her life at large plays well into some of the feminist critique of the scene. She worked at the Playboy Club after the film came out, and was noticeable for a number of reasons, but has largely been left out of the discourse about the scene in question for most of these years. It is, after all, a scene of difficult violence against a woman, and it helps to have the person whose nude body was used by the production to inform us about her time on set. Though it largely stays away from Hitch’s issues with women, a lengthy discussion about the nature of mothers in his oeuvre supplies a few answers, it seems, though you will never hear the name Tippi Hedren uttered here.
The highlight of 78/52 is, undoubtedly, when Philippe completely disappears into a shot-by-shot breakdown of the scene itself. Guided, above all the other voices that we hear throughout the film, by master editor and craftsman Walter Murch (The Conversation, Apocalypse Now!), it’s the kind of careful dissection that so many people want from their cultural commentary and would have typically paid college tuition in order to understand. So much of this section of the film echoes a lecture that I myself sat in on in my days as an undergraduate, and it doesn’t spare us the heady details, though Murch’s polished vocabulary acts as a sieve to cut through so much of the language that normally makes analysis inaccessible. Other academics make their voices heard, and point out things that I’d never noticed. There’s an awkward cut back to the showerhead at one moment at the tail-end of the sequence, and Hitchcock’s own granddaughter, prompted, as it seems in the film, by one academic’s questioning, gives us an answer: Janet Leigh breathed in the middle of the take, and the master director had to cut away from it in order to mask it. Even the masters made mistakes, it seems, even in iconic moments like this.